Many of you have one member of your household who is frequently overlooked. You never got a credit or even an exemption on your tax return. They are not included on your family healthcare plan. You are not automatically entitled to time off work when they have kids or when they die. The reason is because this member of your household is your pet, nothing more than a piece of property in the eyes of the law. However, your pet is nevertheless a member of your family and providing for its care is often as important to you as providing for your children. Occasionally, clients will feel that caring for their pets is more important than their children because people can take care of themselves.
If you have a pet who is near and dear to you, especially if that pet will very likely outlive you (such as a parrot), you should include provisions for your pet as part of your comprehensive estate plan. Unfortunately, you cannot require anyone to take property they do not want and, unlike children, it is very difficult to sue when they are not properly cared for. For these reasons, even if you do not dress your pooch in sweaters during the winter, you should treat their care with the same amount of thought as you would for children.
First, carefully consider who you would like to care for your pet. You should choose someone who doesn’t just like animals, but who likes your animal. Additionally, it is best if their pets are either used to your pet, fairly non-territorial, or if the person you are choosing does not already have pets. Doing so will ensure that your pet is happy in its new home. Although it is tempting to choose someone in your family, it may be worthwhile to consider other trusted friends and neighbors.
Secondly, you should ensure that the person you choose is willing to take care of your pet for the long term. As I said, you cannot force anyone to take property they do not want. Additionally, pet are expensive, increasingly so as they get older. The person you choose may not have the same affection toward your pet that you do, especially right away. If your pet is burdensome, they may not want to adopt it. It is worthwhile to verify that this person is still willing to care for your pet every few years, especially if they have children or adopt a new pet of their own.
Thirdly, you might consider setting aside some money for the care of your pet, as you would for the care of your children. Often, as your pet gets older, health and dental problems will be financially burdensome. You may provide an outright distribution to the caretaker of your pet. Alternatively, California law provides for trusts in favor of pet-beneficiaries. A trust will allow you to name Successor Trustees and place limits on the trust distributions. (Cal Prob. C. 15212)
Finally, if your attempts at finding a caretaker for your pet have failed and you cannot find a person you can trust to care for your pet instead of simply taking the money you have set aside, you could consider a shelter. The biggest advantages to a shelter are that you can be fairly certain that it won’t change its mind and that it will be around long after you are. Visiting shelters and speaking with a person about the types of programs they have in place for the care of pets once their owners are deceased is a good way to ensure that your animal will be properly cared for.
Whatever you decide to do, remembering your pet in your estate plan is a good way to thank it for the years of companionship it provides. Whether it is the dog that greets you at the front door, the cat that sits by you when she feels like it, or the bird you’ve trained to say “hello,” it will appreciate the thought.
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